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Last Updated:  Thursday, 6 March, 2003, 14:04 GMT
Iraqis prepare for the worst
By Nick Pelham

As the American military presence in the Gulf continues to build ahead of a possible US-led attack against Iraq, the people of Baghdad are preparing to stand and fight.

The city's defences are being boosted, with sandbags dotted around street corners and young and old readying themselves to take up arms.

Baghdad market
There is a thin veneer of normality as people go about their daily chores
But the battle to keep fear and panic at bay is not easily won.

Baghdad professor Wamidh Nadhmi runs through a list of his fears: "We worry about the loss of electricity, about water, about how smart smart bombs are, about Iraqi tanks ploughing into our neighbourhood and turning us into military targets, and about mass-hysteria."

The fear has grown so great that his students can no longer concentrate.

Emergency preparations

On the streets, a gritty determination keeps away signs of panic. Traffic wardens issue parking tickets, nervous brides and grooms still turn up at the stall of Said Ali Mudeaagha, neatly-bedecked in a black and white turban, and the Sharia courts are still crammed with fractious couples seeking divorce.

But celebrations for this week's holiday to mark the Muslim New Year were downbeat, and fewer families than usual went to picnic in the palm groves that ring Baghdad.

Iraqis reading newspapers
Iraqis scour the papers for news of the escalating crisis

Instead, Iraqis spent the day digging boreholes through the foundations of their homes, selling their last assets for vital cash to buy a small generator for when the bombs hit the power stations, and shopping for canaries in the bird market of Old Baghdad.

Iraqis hope the canaries might detect any use of chemical weapons before it is too late, but the only civilians in the city with gas masks are foreign journalists.

Museum emptied

Look more closely, and you find that the Arab world's largest museum has packed up its priceless collection of Mesopotamian art and closed its doors.

And at street corners you'll see piles of sandbags - tell-tale signs, say Baghdadis, that the authorities are digging in for a siege.

"However many planes the Americans fly, they will still have to enter the cities," says Hassib Obeidi, a senior ideologue in the Baath, the political party that has ruled Iraq for the past 35 years.

"The battle for Iraq will be fought in the cities. This isn't Kuwait."

Few find reassurance in the message that Baghdad will be the place where the Baath plan to make their last stand.

Iraqi volunteers
Suicide bombers have volunteered to defend the city

Iraq was the first Arab state of the 20th Century to win its independence, and its people do not relish the prospect of becoming the first state to lose it in the 21st.

Young and old vow they will take up arms, of the physical kind if they lack guns, once war begins.

Sixty suicide bombers responded to President Saddam Hussein's appeal for martyrs to join his "army of Jihad".

Armed with dreams of paradise, they marched through the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday vowing to blow themselves up should the US army arrive at the city gates.

But should the patriotism falter and there be a challenge to central authority, Baath apparatchiks armed with machine guns have begun night-time patrols of the streets.

The party has also notified residents that a curfew will be imposed to keep Baghdadis in their homes once the bombing begins.

Even at this late hour, the passport offices are packed.

Religious fever

Threatened from within and without, terrorised Baghdadis are flocking to their houses of prayer for their last hope of salvation.

Sunnis cite the tale of Abraham saved from the fires of hell.

Baghdad prayers
The people of Baghdad are turning to religion for hope of salvation

Christians scour the Book of Isaiah, studying the tale of Sennacherib, a biblical Assyrian king whose massive army was wiped out by the angel of the Lord as it assembled at the gates of Jerusalem.

Shias recount fabulous reports of levitating turbans as proof that God is working a miracle.

Secular men splutter Marx at daughters and wives fast-donning the veil.

The retreat into religious communities also has proved problematic, sparking fears of a flare-up of sectarian tension.

"Worst of all," says Professor Nadhmi. "Iraqis are now afraid of other Iraqis."

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